3 On Your Side Investigates: Pattern of Secrecy

Updated: Jan. 31, 2019 at 1:18 AM CST
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JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - Over the last year, 3 On Your Side has discovered a disturbing trend within the Jackson Police Department: a lack of transparency that could threaten the safety of those who live within the Capital City.

From requests for details on controversial officer-involved shootings to the number of active-duty officers on the force, each was met with silence.

In more than one case, 3 On Your Side had to threaten legal action just to get an answer.

Perhaps more troubling was what 3 On Your Side found in the department’s own weekly crime reports.

For nearly a year, a 3 On Your Side analysis of weekly COMSTAT reports from the Jackson Police Department shows the public’s been sold a safer picture of Jackson than what actually exists.

"Clearly there’s something going on here. This is not to be whitewashed. This is serious. This is people’s lives,” said criminologist John Eterno.

Our investigation found discrepancies in those crime statistics, specifically dealing with year-to-date numbers of major crimes.

“The pattern should just remain the same throughout the data. This is basic statistics 101," Eterno said.

But the pattern in JPD’s reports didn’t remain the same. It dropped more than a few times on specific dates: May 20, July 22 and October 14.

What’s so special about those dates?

Those weekly reports were the ones selected by JPD to be released on social media.

“If you’re seeing a pattern that’s occurring and suddenly on dates of release, you’re seeing a decrease in those numbers, that’s a red flag,” Eterno said.

Several gaps exist in the data because JPD sometimes waited months to release these weekly numbers to the public.

For example, from May until the end of 2018, the department only released three COMSTAT reports on social media: May 20, July 22 and Oct. 14.

But viewing those grand larceny numbers for those dates gives a false impression of the city’s crime picture.

If all someone saw was what the department released, they might think the city had a 55 percent drop in grand larcenies versus the previous year, but that’s not true.

3 On Your Side finally obtained those missing weeks from JPD through an open records request, and it shows a much different reality for the Capital City: higher crime.

When we asked JPD Chief James Davis about this, he let one of the commanders explain why it happened.

“The system, the program we were using, was pulling all of the larcenies. It wasn’t separating grand larceny or misdemeanor," Cmdr. Tyrone Buckley said.

Buckley says that problem started when the law which defined “grand larceny” changed, but that law wasn’t updated in 2018.

Legislators changed that statute more than 4 years ago, which makes you wonder if the department had been dealing with these effects in its crime statistics for four years without noticing.

3 On Your Side found no evidence of those fluctuating numbers in 2017.

“The discrepancy appears to be throughout the year, so. We haven’t narrowed it down to a specific date and timeframe or so forth," Buckley said.

But our analysis -- part of which we provided to the department two weeks before this story aired -- did cite specific dates.

3 On Your Side sent the most egregious example of inaccurate statistics to Davis, which dealt specifically with those grand larceny reports.

“Well, I can assure you, I don’t know why those numbers were lower, when we came into office. I don’t know the reporting date, the actual date they were reporting. However, we identified that problem and we are making steps to correct that problem. I don’t know why they were reported on that day," Davis said.

When asked if he thought it was a strange coincidence for those numbers to drop on days the department released those statistics to the public, Davis said no.

“I don’t think it’s strange. We’re not perfect by no means. You check anywhere, you’re gonna find discrepancies in numbers, in wherever you go, whatever you do. So, we’re not hiding numbers. We don’t have anything to hide,” Davis added.

Eterno doesn’t buy it.

“There is no outside agency reviewing these statistics. Those crimes are more likely to be manipulated because they know they are being judged on these basic crimes," Eterno said.

Eterno speaks from experience, too. He served as a New York City police captain for more than two decades and proved through research that the NYPD’s own crime reporting wasn’t accurate.

“The best that we can hope for from the police department is that they be transparent and try to work with the public to fight real crime and not play with these numbers," Eterno said.

How much do those inaccuracies affect Jackson’s total crime picture?

On July 15, overall crime in 2018 was five percent higher than the previous year.

It was a little higher than that on July 29.

But July 22, the only July week publicly released by the Jackson Police Department, contradicts the weeks around it.

For that week, overall crime swung in the other direction: a five percent decrease.

“Look, there’s no good way to spin this. If the numbers are not being presented accurately and in a timely manner, that’s something that’s bad for the city of Jackson and it needs to be addressed," said Jackson City Councilman Melvin Priester.

That lack of transparency also extended into recent deadly officer-involved shootings in Jackson.

We waited for weeks on incident reports from two of those deadly shootings.

In return, we got retyped reports instead of the originals, meaning we couldn’t tell what JPD might have taken out.

We later learned that employees removed portions of the narrative from both reports, a narrative that would have given the public a better idea of what happened when Crystalline Barnes and Nathaniel Fleming were killed by officers.

“If there’s an ongoing [investigation], you’re going to get limited information and you can’t hold it against the police department because of an ongoing investigation.”

3 On Your Side did get limited information from the department until we threatened legal action against JPD, and the city’s legal department released the full narrative.

For months, JPD couldn’t even produce the number of active duty officers on the streets for us.

We asked because multiple sources within the department tell us that number has dropped to what they call “dangerous” levels.

Davis told us quickly that we could have called and asked him for it directly, but the chief hasn’t been forthcoming with reporters when it comes to the number of officers on the force.

When he spoke to 3 On Your Side’s David Kenney last month, he couldn’t even quote a number.

“I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but it’s gonna make a big dent in our reduction,” Davis said in December after the JPD recruit class graduation.

Now, he says 180 active-duty officers are protecting the public, which boils down to 60 officers per shift.

"I know what we’re doing in providing police service. We’re filling all of our beats. We’re providing the best police service possible with what we have, but we’re not looking for an excuse," Davis said.

And if an investigation into these altered crime stats shows someone did this deliberately, Davis said they’ll take appropriate action, even though he doesn’t believe it was intentional.

“Really, you owe it to the victims. That’s really the concern. The victims are falling through the cracks when either we don’t take reports or we massage reports, we see again. We see it over and over again. I don’t want to single out Jackson. It’s something in this performance management system that needs careful watching. And watchdogs like the media need to be on top of it,” Eterno said.

After 3 On Your Side presented these findings to Jackson City Councilman Melvin Priester, he said he intends to investigate these under-reporting issues and the inconsistency of JPD’s release of these public COMSTAT reports.

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